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United Kingdom: A revolution in the skies... a disaster for the planet

Source:  Copyright 2008, Independent
Date:  March 1, 2008
Byline:  Simon Calder
Original URL: Status DEAD


Cheap flights. More flights. Multiplying routes. At the end of a week that has seen protests against airport expansion, predictions of further airport chaos, and record oil prices, British travellers are showing no sign of shaking off their addiction to CO2-heavy cheap flights.

A record number of new air links will open from the UK to Europe this summer. The Independent has identified 100 entirely new short-haul international routes to be launched from Britain when the summer schedules begin at the end of this month.

More than a dozen new domestic links have also emerged, some as short as 150 miles. And, as from 30 March, when an "open skies" policy takes effect, Heathrow will see transatlantic flights increase by a quarter – adding up to 524 extra flights a month.

It is dizzying stuff. We have never been better informed about the environmental dangers of flying but the brutal truth is unavoidable. Flying is a British boom industry.

The spring of 2008 is likely to prove the most dramatic in Britain's aviation history. Even before the summer schedules, a dozen new routes are being launched – starting at 8.30am today with the maiden flight of Flywatch from Southend to Le Touquet in northern France.

On 18 March, the world's biggest airliner will touch down at Heathrow for the first time in commercial service; the Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 has been described as "the plane built for Heathrow", allowing an airport bursting at the seams to increase passenger numbers.

And at 4am on 27 March, Heathrow's Terminal 5 is due to open, with a protest "flash mob" planned for later the same day.

Then there is the coming transatlantic boom when "open skies" takes effect, allowing any European or American airline to fly from Heathrow to the US – providing it can find slots at the world's most desirable international airport.

The unprecedented expansion of aviation is revealed in figures prepared by the timetable specialist OAG. Its database shows that, during the month of April, nearly 200 new departures a day are expected from UK airports. OAG calculates a year-on-year increase of 5,853 flights from the UK to Europe for April. The net growth will be slightly smaller because some flights from April 2007 have been discontinued, but the data supports the evidence of a bigger-than-ever rise in new routes.

Given the shortage of slots at airports in the South-east, it is no surprise the majority of the 100 new links are from provincial cities. Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh and Exeter all see substantial growth; Belfast, Leeds-Bradford and Liverpool get an expanded range of destinations, too.

Studying the new schedules reveals many "city pairs" that traditional airlines would never contemplate. To France alone, Birmingham to Poitiers, Edinburgh to La Rochelle and Bristol to Bergerac are among the improbable new options this summer. Yet these are exactly the sorts of journeys that environmental campaigners say should be made by train.

When Eurostar's new London home at St Pancras opened three months ago, part of the plan was that connections to and from provincial cities would be simpler and more appealing. Yet the airlines evidently believe that, for example, travellers from Leeds would rather fly direct to Avignon rather than make the straightforward one-change journey by train.

France, despite being 20 minutes closer by rail than it was last summer, wins the largest share of new routes: 29, most of them in the west of the country. Poland and Spain tie for second place with 14 new links each. Flights such as Bournemouth to Wroclaw demonstrate the UK's increasingly strong links with Poland, while Liverpool to Santiago de Compostela shows the expanding horizons of pilgrims and second-home buyers.

Both those services are operated by Ryanair, which now carries more passengers than any other international airline. Driving the firm's expansion is the deal negotiated with Boeing just after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, when it and easyJet were the only major aircraft buyers; Ryanair receives a new 189-seat 737 from Boeing's factory in Seattle every 12 days on average.

Despite a growing chorus of politicians demanding that the rate of expansion of aviation should be slowed, public funds continue to support new routes.

Ryanair's choice of Edinburgh as its 27th European base was sweetened with the help of funds from the Scottish government; passengers bound for the Danish town of Billund will, in effect, be subsidised. And the US carrier Eos will benefit from a £40 tax break for each passenger when it launches business-class only flights from Stansted to Dubai and Newark, New Jersey, in July.

The spectacular expansion after "open skies" is introduced has been revealed in another analysis by OAG. In the first full month, there will be 524 more US-bound flights from Heathrow than in April 2007 – despite the airport being, in effect, full. Air France and KLM are leasing slots previously used for short-haul flights to the big US carriers previously locked out of Heathrow.

For each European route that is replaced by a transatlantic link, there is an additional cost for the environment. On an average April day, there will be 91 departures from Heathrow to America, a 24 per cent rise. The increase in supply is likely to reduce fares , which in turn will encourage more people to fly.

BAA, the Spanish-owned company that runs Heathrow, is hoping for a windfall from the new flights; long-haul passengers typically spend far more at the airport than short-haul travellers. A further boost will come when the Airbus A380 becomes a regular visitor at Heathrow.

At the other end of the scale, the appetite for short hops appears undiminished. Fourteen new domestic links are scheduled for the summer, including one from Newquay to Southampton – a distance of just 150 miles. Our love affair with aviation begins to look like a dangerous obsession.

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